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Politics & Policy

Shooting the Stragglers

President Trump at a campaign rally in Indianapolis, Ind., November 2, 2018. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Can a Trumpified GOP build a long-term majority governing coalition?

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (And those of you who identify as Readers),

I’m on a flight to Florida, and I have to get an essay done for the magazine and work on a new speech for tomorrow, so as Jeremy Corbyn said when asked to provide a list of things he loves about the Jews, I need to keep this short.

I keep seeing all of this stuff about how the midterms were everything from a blip to a huge victory for Trump and that he’s more likely than ever to get reelected. Ehhh . . . maybe. I can see the argument. I just don’t understand the confidence. Just consider the fact that were it not for the Benghazi hearings, Hillary Clinton would probably be president today — because it was those hearings that put her server in play.

I’m a skeptic about the Russia-collusion stuff, but the notion that there’s nothing for a subpoena-powered Democratic House to find in Trump’s closet just strikes me as nuttier than Mr. Peanut’s pool party.

Also, Trump won with a minority of the popular vote. He’s less popular today than he was in 2016, and the Democrats are way more motivated. The GOP coalition has shrunk while the Democratic coalition has expanded. I get that the Democrats have remarkable a gift for screwing things up. But I just can’t understand why anyone would have any confidence about predicting what happens next. The writers of this timeline, after all, put a huge emphasis on the crazy. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if in 2020 the president of the United States were a talking flounder.

But instead of looking at the fact that the Democratic coalition is bulging with young people, while millions of Republicans are leaving the GOP due to the ironclad rules of life expectancy, people are looking at things like Trump’s press conference as proof that 2020 is in the bag.

For example, here’s my friend Hugh Hewitt in the Washington Post:

President Trump will win reelection. Anyone who watched Wednesday’s presser after Trump’s big night Tuesday knows in his or her bones that it will happen, because the president is getting better and better at the job.

I found the whole column so strange. As Hugh admitted to me in a Twitter exchange, the point wasn’t to be empirical. Fair enough. We can chalk up the sweeping claim that anyone who watched the press conference knows in his or her bones that Trump will get reelected to poetic license. I mean, I don’t know that, though in fairness I didn’t watch the whole thing. I merely listened to a bunch of it on the radio, so maybe there was something subliminal in the video — like in The Ring or in those Silver Shamrock commercials from Halloween III — that compels one to believe he will be reelected simply by virtue of the fact that he displayed his usual press-bashing vindictiveness towards Republicans who don’t suck-up to him, and his usual, often entertaining turd-polishing of bad news.

But the fascinating thing about Hugh’s column is that he has redefined the job of the president into “combatant in chief.” What Hugh says about the political culture is largely true. Americans like combat — political, virtual, mortal (Finish him!), etc. — but I don’t understand why Hugh should celebrate the idea that the president of the United States should encourage and amplify that tendency. I’m sure he’d be more critical of a Democratic president doing anything like what Trump does. Moreover, just because the president is “good” at combat doesn’t mean his combativeness attracts more voters to him. Rather, it activates combativeness in his opponents. Not a lot of Democrats are going to say, “I love combat. Trump is better at combat than Nancy Pelosi. Therefore, I will vote for Trump.”

Beyond the wishcasting, these kinds of arguments — which are everywhere on the right these days — seem like Trump-norming to me. In gender-norming, women are rated on a curve. A female applicant can only carry a 110-pound dummy through an obstacle course? Let’s make that the standard for women on the firefighter’s test! Donald Trump can’t act presidential? Make “combativeness ”the new standard for presidents. We take the measure of the man — and make the man the new measure.

What Went Wrong

Let’s talk about the content of Trump’s combativeness. Jonathan Last has an interesting essay on the midterms, arguing that the combat closest to Trump’s heart is with the GOP itself:

It is important to understand that for all the talk about how Trumpism is a reaction to leftism and social-justice warriors and political correctness, the truth is that it is principally an intra-party fight. It’s the final crackup of Cold War Republicanism; a cultural revolution in which the lumpenproletariat seized control of the party from the pointy heads and exiled them to the labor camps. And like the Maoists, the Trumpers aren’t really interested in picking a fight with the other superpower. They’re much more concerned with controlling the near abroad — which is to say, the Republican party. That’s why they tend to focus their hatred on Republicans and conservatives who decline to get on board, rather than on Democrats and liberals. Jeff Flake is the enemy; Kamala Harris is just a random nonplayer character.

Always remember that Trumpers — the people who believe in him, not the remora fish looking for their bits of chum — care very little about the left. Their real opponents are other Republicans. Seen from that perspective, Tuesday’s vote was a huge success. Because for Trumpers, it’s never a binary choice. Wherever a Trump-skeptical Republican was running against a Democrat, Trumpism couldn’t lose.

I think Jonathan overstates a few things, but his central point strikes me as largely correct, particularly when it comes to Trump himself. He mocked candidates who lost because of him but insisted they really lost because they failed to embrace him. This is not a brilliant strategy for winning in 2020; it’s a blunt strategy for Trumpifying the party further. It’s also ridiculous on the merits. The idea that if only Barbara Comstock “embraced” Trump more, her D.C.-suburb constituents would have changed their mind is ludicrous. As Jonathan notes, Carlos Curbelo has a 72 percent Hispanic district, half of which is foreign born. No doubt they voted Curbelo out because they wanted more talk about diseased foreigners and sh**hole countries, not less.

But Trump either believes that the GOP loss of the House proves “people like me” wrong or he at least wants you to believe that. And it’s working.

Indeed, more and more, liking Donald Trump is coming to define whether you’re on the team, and if you don’t like him — by which I mean, if you don’t celebrate his whole catalog the way the Bobs celebrated Michael Bolton’s — you’re part of the problem. Heck you’re not even a conservative.

That’s why Katie Arrington, who defeated Mark Sanford in a primary by promising to be a loyal foot-soldier for Trump, blamed Sanford for her loss of a reliably Republican seat:

“We lost because Mark Sanford could not understand that this race was about the conservative movement — and not about him.”

I heard my friend Mollie Hemingway on Fox refer to the traditional suburban Republican voters the GOP lost as basically “Never Trump elitists.” I know Mollie has very strong views about how Trump-skeptical pundits shouldn’t be given much airtime anymore, but why write off the voters the GOP needs to be a majority party?

Conservatism Norming

My friend Henry Olsen, who is a brilliant election analyst, doesn’t quite do that. In today’s Washington Post, he notes that:

The party’s devastation in traditional, high-income suburban bastions is unmistakable. Nearly every House seat it lost was in these areas. Districts in suburban Atlanta, Houston and Dallas that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 by between 15 and 24 points went Democratic. Districts that Republicans had held for decades outside Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia fell. The blue tide even swept away a GOP seat in Oklahoma City. This trend was more than a coastal fad.

Henry argues that the GOP is “irretrievably on a new path. Either it re-creates a William McKinley-style coalition based on the working-class voter or it dies.”

As a matter of pure political calculation for the GOP, I think Henry’s analysis and prognosis has a lot of merit, and if my overriding concern were winning elections, I might sign up. But Henry’s prescription has some problems if that’s not your only concern. I have no principled problem with the idea of the GOP putting the working class at the forefront of the GOP coalition (though as a policy matter, refusing to deal with entitlements in order to pander to the working class seems like a bad idea). But he wants to launch a long-term transformation of the GOP (and by extension, the conservative movement) based upon Donald Trump’s personality. His term for the working-class voters he wants behind the driver’s seat is literally “Trump Is Great Republicans” or TIGRs.

Henry wants some suburbia-friendly policies in the platform “but not to the extent they conflict with TIGR priorities.”

Can you see the problem yet?

Many — most? — of the people who think Trump Is Great are not primarily driven by public policy. The folks who watched that press conference and said, “This is awesome!” or shouted, “What a statesman!” do not think Trump is great because of policy X or Y. They think policy X or Y is great because Donald Trump says so.

The opposite is true as well. The voters who are horrified by Trump’s style, rhetoric, or personality are not going to be won over with policy. The college-educated suburban women who fled the GOP because of Trump aren’t going to be won back with child-tax credits, at least not as long as Trump is around.

Henry is absolutely right that there is an opportunity here for the Republicans — in the abstract. But in reality, Trump isn’t the guy to sell it. Trump’s chief priority isn’t anything like creating a lasting William McKinley–style coalition; it’s to be the center of attention.

What I find so interesting is how so much has changed so quickly. Just a few years ago, all of the arguments on the right were about how to better bend the GOP to conservatism. Jim DeMint said that he’d rather have 30 pure conservative senators than 60 squishy ones. Now, almost in the blink of an eye, the argument is how to bend conservatism to the GOP. If a woman can’t meet the physical standards, change the standards. If the GOP can’t meet the standards of traditional conservatism, change conservatism.

I have problems with both points of view. The DeMintian position was ridiculous. Majority parties always have diverse coalitions, because it is only by collecting a diverse coalition that you can assemble a majority. FDR’s coalition had everyone from socialist Jews and blacks to Klansmen in it. Goldwater’s coalition was much narrower, and he was trounced.

But the idea that all conservatism should be is a branding operation for the GOP to win elections is an awful idea too. Because that means its ultimate concern is winning, not being right.

Of course, humans have an almost bottomless capacity to convince themselves that they are right about whatever serves their interests. So, I have no doubt we would see such rationalizations about whatever path we went down.

This isn’t just conjecture.

Exhibit A: American liberalism. The starting point for American liberals, for generations, has been: “In our hearts we know we’re right” so therefore the priority shouldn’t be arguing about principles but arguing about how to get or keep liberals in power. The underlying principle was power as its own reward.

Exhibit B: The GOP right frick’n now.

Various & Sundry

Canine Update: The girls are doing just fine. They continue to love the fall weather, though Pippa enjoys the autumn rains — and puddles — more than Zoë does. That’s not to say the Dingo won’t partake of such joys on occasion. The beasts are back at home, being watched by my researcher-producer-amanuensis-majordomo Jack Butler. I believe he understands the full scope of his responsibilities.

ICYMI . . .

Last week’s G-File

Midterm humility

China’s national kibbutz

Who are the RINOs?

Midterm chicanery

More midterm chicanery

DeSantis and felon voting

On the Ross Kaminsky Show

Our weak parties

The 69th Remnant

Max Boot’s confusion

An encomium for Jeff Sessions

The second Remnant of the week

And now, the weird stuff.

Debby’s Friday links

Elephant listens to piano

Roman toilet humor

Tilda Swinton’s spaniels

Conspiracy theory for sale

Stanley Kubrick for sale

Humanity is good sometimes

When you get drunk one night and wake up in another country the next morning

Chasing Bigfoot

A lost duet, found

Llama salvation

That escalated quickly

Cool dog vest

Ducklings on a water slide

Florida man

This seems dubious

I’d like to be, under the sea

The dogs of Capitol Hill

Election Day and porn habits

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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Politics & Policy

Shooting the Stragglers

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays. Dear Reader (And those of you who identify as Readers), I’m on a flight to Florida, and I have to get an essay done for the magazine and work on a ... Read More